Chapter 13: Crisis Communications

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.
-Mark Twain

How fitting that the 13th chapter of this book is for crisis communications: indeed, there is much bad luck associated with needing the knowledge and skills taught herein.

Despite the best laid plans of the best public relations practitioners, clients and employers sometimes find themselves embroiled in a public relations crisis—even through no fault of their own—and need to navigate the very difficult path from crisis to stability.

This is an important point: in the short-term the goal of crisis communications isn’t success or profitability or victory or anything so grandiose; it’s stability; it’s survival.

When embroiled in a communications crisis, survival is a good mantra to have and the role of doctor is a good one to envision: what medicine does the employer/client need to survive this crisis? And, as many doctors may tell you, the best option is prevention. What can be done before a crisis to limit its spread and impact?

13.1. Crisis Communications Planning and Preparation

When joining an organization, a PR practitioner should be very interested in seeing the crisis communications plans in place and should be interested in learning what preparations have been implemented, what training has been done to keep personnel ready for a crisis, and what resources are available in the event calamity strikes. If no plans are in place, creating such a plan should be a top priority. Equally, if no training is being done or if inadequate resources are available, this should be remedied quickly.

These are the crisis communications preparations that should be in place in any organization:

  • Completed crisis communications plan (with associated policy documents)
  • Designated crisis management team (with role definitions and 24/7 contact information)
  • Pre-established communications channels and protocols
  • Trained spokespeople (with 24/7 contact information)
  • Confirmed media contact list (updated regularly)
  • Verified contact information for key personnel (especially cell phone numbers)
  • Pre-authorized information sheets, especially about sensitive areas of operation
  • Pre-prepared templates and boilerplates
  • Designated meeting places and primary and secondary crisis management centers

Crisis preparation can be a dismal experience. Organizations should brainstorm worst case scenarios and discuss probable responses, even exploring morbid and gruesome possibilities. (This author once produced a crisis communications plan for an organization with multiple childcare facilities, which basically amounted to a greatest hits album of every parent’s worst nightmares.) These tasks are unpleasant, but are essential to help prepare personnel to respond effectively in a crisis. Such preparations may also help to limit liability stemming from a crisis, as a failure to prepare could be a civil suit waiting to happen.

13.2. Symptoms of a Crisis

What makes a crisis? That’s subjective, but everybody seems to be very clear and sure when they’re in one.

There are several symptoms that make up a crisis:

  • Surprise
  • Lack of information
  • Escalating severity
  • Loss of control
  • Increasing audience hostility
  • Existential threat

Each of these symptoms is problematic, but skilled PR practitioners can limit the impact of each.

For example, surprise can be partially neutralized through anticipation; did the team prepare a crisis communications plan that anticipated this possibility?

Equally, an information deficit can be partially neutralized through preparation. Even if you don’t have all the information in a crisis, you’ve prepared how to respond and you can issue holding statements until more information is available.

As the crisis gets worse (which it will if it’s truly a crisis), strong planning and training will help to maintain clear communication, organizational effectiveness, and calm leadership.

When the organization has truly lost control of the situation (which, again, will happen if it’s truly a crisis), engaged monitoring of the situation and active engagement will help navigate until a modicum of control can be established.

As audiences learn about the crisis, they will quickly lay blame, even if unfairly. Taking a values-based approach can help. One important lesson in a crisis is to always put victims first. If the organization shows that value, audiences will appreciate the concern for human wellbeing. Protecting wildlife, the environment, and personal property is also valued by audiences. Companies that do so stand to recover well. Companies that try not to spend too much on remediation during a crisis stand to lose the loyalty of stakeholders and invoke the wrath of others (especially regulators).

Finally, as an organization faces the distinct possibility that it will not survive the crisis, this symptom can be partially negated by suspending emotional reactions, respecting and supporting the emotions of others, and focusing on rational action.

13.3. Types of Crisis

Natural: a natural crisis is typically a volcanic eruption, earthquake, tsunami, deluge, flood, drought, heat wave, wildfire, sandstorm, landslide, avalanche, blizzard, hailstorm, ice storm, tornado, hurricane, typhoon, cyclone, asteroid, or problematic type of vermin.

While one can always discuss the role of human-made climate change in some of these, in the short-term, they need to be treated as natural.

From a PR perspective, these are generally the easiest to deal with because they are completely beyond the control of anybody to stop (again, excluding the fact that some of these are caused by human-made climate change). However, if an organization has failed to prepare for these predictable occurrences (such as flooding on the Red River or blizzards in north-eastern North America, which are both common occurrences), then they will need to explain that failure sooner or later.

Active accident: there are too many possibilities to list here, but this happens when there is a deliberate action, such as building a bridge, with unintended consequences, such as its collapse during construction.

The original decision may have been perfectly fine, but something went wrong that will have PR consequences. Understanding what the problem is, taking responsibility for the problem and the solution, and doing everything possible to protect people, the environment, wildlife, and personal property is the path forward.

Passive accident: examples include system failures, neglect, or technical problems.

These are more problematic because they are usually entirely preventable. A failure of due diligence is often the root cause and audiences are not sympathetic to neglectful management.

In addition to solving the problem, stakeholders will often look for a higher level of accountability here. In other words, the people responsible may likely be fired (or even prosecuted).

Confrontational: typical examples include boycotts, protests, strikes, lockouts, censures, sanctions, or some pressure or threat to do the same.

Some of these PR crises are less of a crisis and more of a slow burn, such as with labour disputes. In some cases, the disputes cause significant hardship to people, but they are unlikely to result in a loss of life or damage to the natural environment (when there is a risk to life or the environment, governments will often order an end to the dispute, assigning a mediator to help resolve it).

The key to these crises is to keen the long-term outcome in mind. These confrontational crises can turn violent, but no one violent action will define the outcome weeks or months later (though it may unfortunately taint the outcome and cause lingering hurt feelings).

In some situations, such as with a lockout, the crisis is one of the client/employer’s own deliberate making, so audiences may have little sympathy for the situation.

External malevolent: examples include vandalism, arson, sabotage, violence, theft, espionage, and corruption.

How to handle these situations is extremely variable and dependent on the precise circumstances of the crisis. There’s a huge difference between a company being a victim of theft from a ransomware attack that could compromise customer accounts, as compared to somebody sabotaging their remote facilities that customers will never directly notice.

As always, PR practitioners need to think about who the victims are (hint: not the company, even when the company has been robbed) and how to protect them (i.e., the company’s stakeholders who may be vulnerable as a result of the situation).

Internal malevolent: similar to the above examples, this is when somebody within the organization commits an act of vandalism, arson, sabotage, violence, harassment, theft, espionage, corruption, sexual misconduct, or even unrelated criminality.

As a note, scandals such as these do not need to actually be criminal actions. For example, if a CEO is having numerous consensual sexual relationships concurrently with multiple employees, this might be gross managerial misconduct, but it’s not actually a crime. That doesn’t matter much; the crisis will need to be handled (and your CEO is probably choosing between resigning and getting fired).

False/manufactured: these include untrue rumours, speculation, misinformation, disinformation, slander, libel, and unfair associations (such as when former company leaders or employees are charged with disturbing crimes).

With every one of these types of crisis, litigation is a potential or even likely event. During the crisis, litigation is a volatile aggravator and it can limit how PR practitioners respond. PR practitioners are wise to get the lawyers involved too early, rather than too late.

13.4. Benefits of a Crisis

Amazingly, there can actually be benefits to a PR crisis. Consider the recent global pandemic; health ministers became trusted friends and public health officials became heroes, nearly even patron saints. The crisis exposed weaknesses in a variety of sectors and forced a greater global understanding of the importance of public health, supply chain management, and the stress that a general crisis can cause the population at large.

Heroes are born: people will quickly learn who they can rely on in a crisis. Those people are going to gain a favourable spotlight and will be called upon more often and in more important roles.

Change is accelerated: sometimes, change is aching to happen, but organizational resistance or other factors limit that change. A crisis will blow the lid off such containment, forcing rapid adaptations and deployment of resources.

Latent problems are faced: a problem that has been simmering for a long-time explodes; the organization’s delay in dealing with the problem comes to a sudden end and the problem is finally fixed.

People are changed: this has a double meaning. First, people change their attitudes, behaviours, and approaches. Second, if they don’t, they are pushed out of the organization, sometimes known as “cleaning house.” While not pretty, sometimes cleaning house is essential for organizational growth and renewal. (Voters happily confirm this necessity at least every few elections!)

New strategies evolve: old ways of doing business may have worked, but they can be replaced in a hurry because of the immediate necessity to do so. The new strategies and approaches may be for the best and stand the test of time.

Better preparation for the next crisis: battle-tested veterans of one crisis are better equipped to handle the next. Going through a crisis helps to cultivate a long-term view and to keep an emotional calm in short-term decision-making.

New competitive edge and organizational resilience: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Another cliché is probably available for each of the above, as well, if desired.)

13.5. Words for the Wise

Dealing with a public relations crisis is an emotional experience.

Knowledge of past crises and best practices is invaluable, but confronting and containing one’s own emotions at the same time as trying to read the emotional needs of others, especially target audiences, is the quintessential skill of crisis management.

Planning, preparation, training, simulating, testing, and other methods of minimizing the impacts and stress of a crisis are critically important. However, in the moment-to-moment experience of a crisis, self-discipline, calm listening, genuine empathy, and clear thinking are going to be the tools that make or break a PR practitioner and their client/employer.


Parts of this chapter were informed by or are conceptually drawn from the work of Gerald Meyers, author of Managing Crisis : A Positive Approach (1986).


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Public Relations: From Strategy to Action Copyright © 2023 by Sam Schechter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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